The Women

Hilton Als

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

160 Pages



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A New York Times Notable Book

Daring and fiercely original, The Women is at once a memoir, a psychological study, a sociopolitical manifesto, and an incisive adventure in literary criticism. It is conceived as a series of portraits analyzing the role that sexual and racial identity played in the lives and work of the writer's subjects: his own mother, a self-described "Negress," who would not be defined by the limitations of race and gender; the mother of Malcolm X, whose mixed-race background and eventual descent into madness contributed to her son's misogyny and racism; brilliant, Harvard-educated Dorothy Dean, who rarely identified with other blacks or women, but deeply empathized with white gay men; and the late Owen Dodson, a poet and dramatist who was female-identified and who played an important role in the author's own social and intellectual formation.

Hilton Als submits both racial and sexual stereotypes to his inimitable scrutiny with relentless humor and sympathy. The results are exhilarating. The Women is that rarest of books: a memorable work of self-investigation that creates a form all its own.


Praise for The Women

"Inventive and daring . . . A fascinating sensibility."—Richard Bernstein, The New York Times

"The Women is a book to read several times, noting how its application grows broader and broader upon consideration. Like all truly original writing, it comes to no conclusions, imposes no creed and sets the reader free to ponder. Writing of people who limited themselves and died of it, Mr. Als has overcome limits . . . On the strength of his vision, he has managed to enter those 'expansive interior places' his mentor avoided. One hopes that he will just keep going."—Andrea Lee, The New York Times Book Review

"The Women is frustrating, incisive, and thoroughly entertaining . . . [Al'ss] voice [is] honest, articulate, and intelligent."—Salon

"The soul of the book is Als's self-identification as a Negress, a kind of black woman who refuses to be contained. And yet he is not a woman. This tension, between feeling and being, is the soul of Als's creative process. He exposes it with great courage and giving, even when it becomes infuriating."—The Advocate

"Examining the images of 'the Negress' and the 'good Negro' as they have shaped the lives of several remarkable men and women, including Fulbright scholar and 'fag hag' Dorothy Dean, poet Owen Dodson, and the author himself, this extended essay combines riveting subject matter with an original critical approach. According to New Yorker staff writer Als, the image of the Negress, of a woman of color living out a clichéd life of poverty, self-abnegation, and Christian forbearance, has been a deforming and resilient presence in the American imagination for a long time. She is a familiar figure in popular culture. On a personal level, Als explores the history of (and his identification with) the Negress he knew most intimately, his mother, who donned a cap of smiling servitude when she emigrated to this country from Barbados and whose 'long, slow, public death was an advertisement for the life she had lived.' Dorothy Dean, on the other hand, was a brilliant and difficult woman who graduated from Radcliffe in the 1950s, at a time when black women still had few choices. Dean attempted to subvert the image of the self-sacrificing Negress, but could never entirely escape it. Greatly gifted but filled with doubt, she came to New York, sampled and abandoned a series of professions, and surrounded herself with upper-class white gay men, fortifying her self-hatred with relationships based on sarcasm and gossip. Als also writes about the sexual relationship he had from ages 15 to 19 with the poet Owen Dodson, who was older than his mother 'but just as committed to the experience of pain.' Dodson sacrificed his wit on the page for the acceptable oppressed voice of the New (and publishable) Negro and drank himself into a self-destructive old age. What makes this debut book so compelling is the author's ability to combine extreme honesty with sharp critical discourse, his willingness to explore the shadows of complex lives, including his own, that challenge clichés about race and gender without ever sacrificing intellectual rigor."—Kirkus Reviews

Reviews from Goodreads



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The Women
1Until the end, my mother never discussed her way of being. She avoided explaining the impetus behind her emigration from Barbados to Manhattan. She avoided explaining that she had not been motivated by the same desire for personal gain and opportunity that drove most female immigrants. She avoided recounting the fact that she had emigrated to America to follow the man who eventually became my father, and whom she had known in his previous incarnation as her first and only husband's closest friend. She avoided explaining how she had left her husband--by whom she had two daughters--after
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  • Hilton Als

  • Hilton Als is a staff writer for The New Yorker.